Sexual Ethics

By Priest, Jim L. | THE JOURNAL RECORD, October 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Sexual Ethics


Priest, Jim L., THE JOURNAL RECORD


I am involved in a lot of sexual harassment. Well, let me re- phrase that. As an attorney who practices in the field of employment law, I see a lot of sexual harassment cases.

I have represented accused harassers and companies who employed them. They are stunned by the sexual harassment lawsuit when it hits. They react strongly to the accusations. They want an aggressive defense mounted without regard to expense.

Sometimes such vigor is warranted because the allegations are a bogus attempt at financial extortion. But other times it is money ill spent as the truth eventually leaks out and everyone discovers the supposedly innocent accused is not so lily white. I also have represented women who have been harassed. Sometimes they were raped. Other times they were fondled. Many times they are subjected to "body brushing" in a cramped copy room or leering, joking comments or other "subtle" forms of harassment. Sometimes they quit. Other times they file suit. All have one thing in common: They are never the same again. Automatically liable At its heart, sexual harassment is an ethical issue and how organizations deal with harassment carries ethical implications. Harassment undercuts the value and worth of each individual and destroys self-esteem. It creates informal and unprincipled hierarchies. The one who harasses is stronger than the one being harassed and therefore gains control. Sexual harassment is akin to criminal rape because it is more about power than it is about sex. Organizations who wish to maintain an ethical environment must be vigilant in the war against harassment. And now companies have even more motivation to deal strongly with harassment. Two recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court make it absolutely imperative that all organizations take a proactive approach in the area of sexual harassment. Ellerth vs. Burlington Northern and Farragher vs. City of Boca Rotan both stand for the proposition that employers must take the initiative in stamping out harassment in the workplace. If a supervisor of a worker engages in harassment that affects a "tangible job benefit," the court said the company will be automatically liable. So if Foreman Frank tells Worker Wanda that her next raise is contingent on her going to bed with him, Frank's company will be in the soup. If Frank harasses Wanda but doesn't condition her "benefits" on giving in to his sexual demands, the company may still be liable. In order to win this kind of lawsuit, the Supreme Court said a company must show it took steps to reduce and eliminate harassment; most likely this will include a policy and a viable complaint procedure. The company also must show the harassed individual unreasonably failed to take advantage of the complaint procedure. In most cases that's a tall order.

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